Q&A: The Columbus Zoo's Jack Hanna

By Kitty McConnell
Photos by Ryan M.L. Young

Columbus Zoo and Aquarium director emeritus Jack Hanna remains devoted to the ever-expanding zoo and the community funding its development

Jack Hanna didn’t build the zoo by himself, as he’s quick to tell you.

“It wasn’t Jack Hanna, it was the citizens of Franklin County and Columbus,” says the director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. “The levy has built the Columbus Zoo. I’ve been, like, the captain of the football team kind of thing,”

Kind and charismatic, Hanna is also a hard-driving team leader who, by instinct and force of will, led the zoo from a prolonged losing streak in the late 1970s to become the winning enterprise it is today. Hanna’s accomplishments—not to mention his unfettered personality—have made him a local icon on par with that other legendary and sometimes controversial Columbus coach, Woody Hayes. Much like Hayes’ Ohio State Buckeyes, Hanna’s Columbus Zoo has become one of the city’s defining institutions.

Hanna spent the morning of this interview driving in a near blizzard to corporate holiday luncheons across the city, pausing only to take an urgent telephone call from the president of Rwanda. He was also preparing to host the zoo’s live televised holiday special that evening. Before filming began, Hanna had one final appointment with developers on an ongoing ecotourism project he’s overseeing for the king of Gabon.

In the shuffle, Hanna hadn’t eaten all day. Nonetheless, he was gracious and thorough in every response. It’s easy to understand why he’s a popular guest on programs ranging from Good Morning American to Anderson Cooper 360 and Late Night with David Letterman. Over a bagel and a can of Coke, Hanna sat down with Columbus CEO in his basecamp yurt on the grounds of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium to discuss his local and international work as director emeritus.

*Interview has been condensed and edited for length

Jack Hanna

Director emeritus
The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

CV highlights: Host of Emmy award-winning Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild and Wild Countdown; regular guest on The Late Show with David Letterman, Good Morning America, Larry King Live, Anderson Cooper 360 and more; executive director of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, 1978-92; director of the Central Florida Zoo, 1973-75.

Education: Bachelor of arts in business and political science, Muskingum College; honorary doctor of science, Otterbein University; honorary doctor of science, Capital University; honorary doctor of science, Muskingum College